Research shows dads are plating up

Research news

11 October 2016

Adam Walsh, a 2016 Neil Archbold Travel Award recipient, has investigated the influence of fathers on their children’s diets.

It may once have solely been the domain of mums, but, today, dads are playing a growing role in their children’s diets, a Deakin University researcher has found.

For his PhD, Mr Adam Walsh, a dietitian from Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, is investigating the influence of fathers on their young children’s diets, as a means of informing strategies to improve the nation’s health.

He has been awarded a 2016 Deakin University Neil Archbold Memorial Travel Award and Medal in recognition of his efforts, with his paper being assessed as one of the two best peer-reviewed journal articles by a Deakin research degree candidate in sciences and humanities/social sciences.

The $3000 travel awards were established in remembrance of one of Deakin’s finest researchers, who was an eminent palaeontologist and scholar.

The award will support Mr Walsh to build his knowledge-base and extend his networks in a two week visit to Canada and the USA next year.

A former dietitian at the Royal Children’s Hospital and father of two young boys himself, Mr Walsh said that his research aimed to fill a knowledge gap.

“We knew that mothers have a strong influence on their children’s diet and have traditionally been the family’s nutrition gatekeeper,” he explained.

“However, over the past 20 to 30 years, with changing societal roles, many dads have begun stepping up to the plate. I wanted to see how this is influencing their children’s activity levels and diets, to find an additional way of working to improve diets and combat poor nutritional habits in Australia and overseas.

“We found dads are having a larger influence than we thought. Father’s diets are associated with their children’s diets, and socioeconomic status (as assessed by educational background), age and Body Mass Index (BMI) all moderate these relationships.

“Also, in a previous finding, wives and partners have little influence in changing their husband’s eating habits, even though their diets may be correlated. This means we need to consider fathers when it comes to influences on children’s diets”

Mr Walsh’s winning paper, “Associations between dietary intakes of first-time fathers and their 20-month-old children are moderated by fathers’ BMI, education and age,” was published in the “British Journal of Nutrition.”

It revealed that fathers’ diets influence how much fruit, vegetables, sweet snacks and takeaway foods their young children consume.

Paternal BMI influences children’s takeaway food intake, in that children with overweight fathers tend to eat more takeaway foods, whilst fathers’ education levels particularly influence children’s fruit and sweet snack intake. Children of university-educated fathers eat more fruit, while those of non-university educated fathers eat more sweet snacks. Additionally, children with older fathers tend to eat more vegetables.

Whilst mothers may mediate some of the dietary relationships observed, the research showed that the influence of fathers on their children’s diets is effectively independent of mothers’ diets, highlighting the need for fathers to be included in public health strategies.

“For the next stage of my work, I hope to investigate how we can use dads as agents of change to improve Australian children’s diets more broadly,” Mr Walsh said. “Dads are not the ‘be all and end all,’ but they are a very important part of the equation. The family is the most important influence on children’s diets throughout their lifetime.”

Mr Walsh will use his award funds to visit academic colleagues in North America and attend the world’s most prestigious international conference in his field, hosted by the International Society of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity (ISBNPA).

At the Canada conference, he will present his paper and subsequent findings and hopes to chair a symposium on the influence of fathers on diet.

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"Fathers’ diets influence how much fruit, vegetables, sweet snacks and takeaway foods their young children consume."

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